If you want to understand Gillo Pontecorvo’s acclaimed film about the Algerian war of independence, it helps to keep a few things in mind. First of all, the screenplay was written by Saadi Yacef, one of the leaders of the NLF, while he was in a French prison. Second, even though The Battle of Algiers is about a French military victory, it was banned in France for five years. Third, it was re-released in a high-quality format in the United States in 2004 by the Criterion Collection at least partly because it had been screened at the Pentagon as a “how to manual” for counterinsurgency. If the de Gaulle administration found the Battle of Algiers embarrassing and potentially inflammatory, then the Bush administration believed it was a useful way to prepare the American people for the long “war on terror.”
In other words, The Battle of Algiers is many things to many people. For the American liberal elite, film critics from Pauline Kael on down, the film is about about the “cycle of violence” that begins when anti-colonial rebels resort to terrorism. They will usually point to the rightfully acclaimed scene where a female NLF member plants a bomb inside a “milk bar” in the European quarter of Algiers and looks into the eyes of her intended victims, women, teenagers, before she walks out and leaves them to their doom. I had uncomfortable flashbacks to the coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing. The explosion, when it happens, probably looks bigger than it did in real life. The real bombing killed 3 people and wounded 70 more. The bombing in the film looks as if it kills dozens.
Radicals, on the other hand, will almost always point to the dramatic, surging protest scenes. ‘Not a foot of documentary footage was used in this film,” the disclaimer at the beginning of The Battle of Algiers used to read, and you can see why. There hasn’t been revolutionary agitprop this good since Eisenstein’s October. De Gualle’s sensors were onto something Roger Ebert and Vincent Canby missed. Pontecorvo is the most dangerous of Marxists, Pauline Kael remarked, a “Marxist poet.”
The Battle of Algiers is dominated by two characters, Ali LaPointe, played by Brahim Haggiag, and Lieutenant-Colonel Mathieu, played by Jean Martin. Except for the sexy female guerillas who plant the bomb in the milk bar, the rest of the cast might as well not exist, so thoroughly do Brahim Haggiag and Jean Martin make the film theirs. Saadi Yacef, the screenwriter, plays a thinly fictionalized version of himself, but I couldn’t figure out who he was. The Battle of Algiers opens with a bang, or, to be more accurate, a scream, a torture scene. The French have just water boarded an old man who, after struggling to resist, finally gives in and tells them where Ali LaPointe, the last surviving leader of the rebellion, is hiding. We flash back to 1954. LaPointe, is a small time street hustler trying to scam a few francs in the European quarter of Algiers. When a woman points him out to the police, he takes off. He’s nimble and fast, and would escape, but a group of white Frenchman trip him up. One of the young men, a sneering little blond in a preppy sweater, laughs out loud, and LaPointe sucker punches him, crushing his jaw. A thick, gooey mass of blood and mucus oozes out of his mouth onto his pale skin.
Ali LaPointe’s rise through the ranks of the FLN mirrors the FLN’s rise to the leadership of the nationalist rebellion in Algiers. He’s radicalized in prison. He’s allowed to join the FLN after he shows himself willing to assassinate a French policeman. The rebels begin a two-pronged campaign. They shut down the drug dealers, pimps and scam artists who prey on the Muslim population, and keep them passive and apolitical. They assassinate random French policeman. After the French colonists retaliate, planting a gigantic bomb in the Muslim district that kills 70 people, the FLN retaliates in turn. The “cycle of violence” is indeed under way, but what most of the American reviews miss is that at no times does Pontecorvo or the screenwriter Saadi Yacef insist that it’s a senseless cycle of violence. Rather, the violence is shown to be an inevitable part of the “cycle of revolution.” No colonial power, from the British in 1776 to the Americans in Vietnam in 1973, has ever left voluntarily. When Larbi Ben M’hidi, one of the top FLN commanders, is asked by a news reporter if using baskets to carry bombs into the European quarter of Algiers is cowardly, he says that it is indeed cowardly,but not as cowardly as it is for the imperialists to bomb villages from the air.
“Give us your bombers,” he says, “and you can have our baskets.”
Lieutenant-Colonel Mathieu has none of the sentimental horror of violence of the typical American liberal film critic, but he’s no Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly, no knuckle dragging racist or anti-Muslim bigot. Rather, like a French John Paul Vann, he’s an apolitical technocrat, even a liberal, but, unlike William Westmoreland or Robert McNamara, he understands how to make counterinsurgency work. If Mathieu understands counterinsurgency deep inside his bones, it’s because he’s seen it from the other side. A member of the French Resistance during World War II, it never quite occurs to him that the Algerians would want the French out Algeria as much as the French wanted the Nazis out of France. Or maybe he does. Maybe he’s just a racist who believes white Frenchman have a right to their independence in a way brown skinned Algerians don’t. Maybe he knows everything he’s doing is morally evil, but, as a soldier, he’s willing to save the empire for the sentimental liberals who don’t understand what colonialism really means. Indeed, as Mathieu points out to a reporter during a press conference, the “white privilege” of the French colony in Algiers depends on strongmen like himself doing the dirty work for people who claim to be above it all.
In any event, he’s Ali LaPointe’s mirror image. Ali LaPointe is fire. Mathieu is ice. LaPointe is the idealized proletarian, the salt of the earth molded into a socialist recruiting poster. Mathieu barely has a body at all. He’s the dispassionate logic of colonialism taken to its brutal, sordid conclusion.
The French military victory is a moral defeat. Mathieu uses torture, not as a blunt instrument of terror, but as as the well-calibrated tool he needs to isolate the leadership of the FLN. But it’s all meaningless in the end. If the FLN plays into Mathieu’s hands by calling their ill-advised general strike, then Mathieu, in turn, plays into the FLN’s hands. Water boarding, forced labor, and military government succeed in defeating the FLN as an organization. But they also split France in half exactly the way the Nazis did. There are the pied noirs, the right-wing terrorists and colonialists, the white supremacists and unabashed imperialists who, we presume, are willing to let the Nazis occupy their souls exactly the way the German army occupied French soil. Vichy lives on in Algiers, but there is also the democratic, civilized side of France, the old integrationist, Jacobin ideal that wanted to “civilize” the Algerians, not colonize them. “Why are the Sartres always on the other side?” Mathieu asks when a reporter talks about the mood in Paris. By the end of the film French democrats, although we never see them on screen, have had enough. De Gualle is ready to end the occupation, to lose Algeria in order to prevent a civil war.
If there’s a lesson for revolutionaries in The Battle of Algiers, it’s a sobering lesson. You can free your country from the occupier, but you won’t see the promised land. Occupy Wall Street wanted to start off with the leaderless revolution, but it doesn’t work that way in the real world. You need leaders willing to sacrifice themselves, go to jail, go into hiding, face torture, get murdered by the state like Larbi Ben M’hidi, to see their whole carefully built organization exterminated by a carefully drawn up,and inevitable reign of terror. Ali LaPointe is everything an Occupy anarchist, or a right wing libertarian is not, a man willing to die for his freedom. “Are you afraid now?” he asks a French policeman as he holds him at gun point, and, yes, that French policeman was afraid. More importantly, however, the French people had a limit. France wasn’t Vichy and Vichy wasn’t France.
But what happens when occupiers not only are willing to become Nazis but don’t have to face the Soviet or the Anglo American armies? When the imperialists are willing to destroy what they can’t control, and aren’t stopped by a power stronger than they are? For that you have to turn to Gillo Pontecorvo’s next great film, Burn.
As terrible as he is, a Lieutenant-Colonel Mathieu is not the worst tool the imperialists have. There are much more destructive things that can be done to people who rebel.